The purpose of the Atonement of our Savior is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” 1 This grand purpose has been revealed from time to time to the prophets; this type of revelation is known as an apocalypse.
An apocalypse is a record of an opening of the veil (from Greek apokalypsis , literally “unveiling”) so that the prophet may see the end from the beginning and truly understand God’s plan and purposes. All the dispensational prophets have recorded their apocalypse experiences—Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph Smith. 2 (There is also evidence of a lost Apocalypse of Noah. 3)
Additionally, many other prophets have recorded apocalyptic visions, including Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John the Revelator. In fact, the entire book of Revelation is known in most languages as “the Apocalypse.” 4 (Intriguingly, many other “apocalypses” are found in apocryphal sources, such as the Apocalypses of Adam, Noah, Peter, Paul, and Mark.) D&C 138 might also be termed an apocalyptic revelation given to President Joseph F. Smith.
The apocalyptic vision of Joseph Smith found in D&C 76 is the most complete. As with all apocalyptic visions, it starts with the unveiling of the great throne room of heaven: “We beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fullness; and saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne.”
This grand vision enables the Prophet to declare: “And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God.” 5
From that point, the whole sweep of God’s plan is laid out before the Prophet. He sees the grand council in heaven where so many “rebelled against the Only Begotten Son.” He sees the ultimate fate of those who follow Satan, “having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it . . . the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power.” These are known as the “sons of perdition,” a word meaning “lost.” 6
For all the other children of our Heavenly Father, the Atonement of Christ makes it possible to be saved in glory. “All the rest shall be brought forth by the resurrection of the dead, through the triumph and the glory of the Lamb.” 7
Three Kingdoms of Glory
Joseph then views in panorama the three kingdoms of glory that the apostle Paul also saw in vision. Paul describes the inhabitants of these kingdoms this way:
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. 8
In Paul’s Greek original, the term “celestial” is epouranion , which means “supra-heavenly.” It is the sun-like supernal glory enjoyed by those who live in the presence of the Father. The term translated as “terrestrial” is epigeion , which means “supra-earthly,” or “above the earth” in glory, as the moon is above the earth. (In English, “terrestrial” usually means “earthly,” but Paul’s term does not mean that.)
Paul does not use the term “telestial” to describe the glory of the stars, but it also is possibly derived from a Greek original. Tele- is a common Greek term meaning “far away, distant, at an end,” as in words like television (far-seeing), telephone (far sound), or teleology (the farthest and final ending point of something). Intriguingly, the Greeks had a great temple at Eleusis called the Telesterion, which was used for the enactment of a sacred drama depicting the descent into Hades. The term “telestial” is an appropriate designation for the kingdom that is farthest from the presence of our Heavenly Father.
The Glory of the Celestial
The qualifications for entering the celestial kingdom are simple and plain:
They are they who receive the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized …. that by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins, and receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power; and who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true. 9
Any human soul can gain entrance to the celestial kingdom by following these straightforward commandments: faith, repentance, baptism, and the receiving of the Holy Ghost. Those who choose this path become members of “the church of the Firstborn … into whose hands the Father has given all things—they are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness…. They are gods, even the sons of God.” 10
What is the celestial kingdom like? Joseph Smith describes it in vision:
I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof … I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire; also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son…. I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept. 11
It is a place of “transcendent beauty” where we will meet our beloved families and all our righteous forbears once again, never to be parted. Joseph was surprised to see his brother Alvin there because he had died before the restoration of baptism for the remission of sins. In this vision Joseph learned a profound principle:
All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God . Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom. 12
In other words, celestial glory is a choice of the heart. We become heirs of that kingdom through the ordinances, it is true—but those ordinances can be done by proxy. It is receiving the ordinances that matters. They are symbols of the desires of our hearts and the commitment to come unto Jesus.
Tragically, although it is open to anyone who will receive Jesus, many will not choose the celestial kingdom. It doesn’t suit them—it is contrary to the desires of their hearts—they desire something else. Personally, I believe pride is the chief obstacle to the celestial kingdom. A prideful person simply puts his own counsel ahead of the Lord’s and will not follow Him.
We also learn from the Prophet that the celestial kingdom contains three degrees:
In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; and if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase.
Those who are willing to enter into a covenant of eternal love receive crowns of eternal life. We know that the celestial kingdom is a great family circle, sealed together by the Holy Spirit of promise, and that in that circle there are no unkind or harsh feelings. Endless love reigns there. It is the kingdom of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren.
If a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise … and if [they] abide in my covenant … They shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods, because they have no end … because they have all power. 14
Again, the highest degree of the celestial glory is a choice of the heart. Even those who never marry in this life can choose this degree of glory in their hearts and be assured of receiving it. President Spencer W. Kimball promised single Church members:
Insofar as eternity is concerned, no soul will be deprived of rich and high and eternal blessings for anything which that person could not help, that the Lord never fails in his promises, and that every righteous person will receive eventually all to which the person is entitled. 15
By contrast, those who in their hearts do not choose the covenant of eternal love exclude themselves from the highest degree of the celestial. We are told that the inhabitants of that kingdom are “kings and queens,” which means that they live by the “royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” 16 The celestial glory is the kingdom of infinite love—and it is that undying love that makes it a place of radiance and “continuation of the lives.”
The Glory of the Terrestrial
The Prophet reveals that the terrestrial kingdom differs from the celestial even as “the moon differs from the sun in the firmament.” Those who choose terrestrial glory—and it is a free choice—“received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” in the spirit world when the gospel was proclaimed to them. 17 These are not people who never heard the gospel in the flesh, nor are they people who merely heard of the gospel. These are people who knowingly—fully understanding what they are rejecting—decline to follow the Savior in this life. It is a free, fully informed choice.
Unfortunately, the terrestrial glory also includes those who “are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus.” In other words, they are Church members who receive the testimony of the Savior passively but choose not to actively follow Him.
President Ezra Taft Benson straightforwardly defined those who are “valiant in the testimony of Jesus”: “They are courageous in defending truth and righteousness. These are members of the Church who magnify their callings in the Church, pay their tithes and offerings, live morally clean lives, sustain their Church leaders by word and action, keep the Sabbath as a holy day, and obey all the commandments of God.” 18 They are heirs of the celestial kingdom.
In Joseph Smith’s day, the word valiant was defined this way: “strong, vigorous, brave, courageous.” 19 Terrestrial souls are “honorable,” we are told, but they are passive and weak in their testimonies. They choose not to magnify their callings or contribute to the Lord’s work. They may be morally lax. They may choose to put their own counsel ahead of the Lord’s. They may forget the Sabbath. They are selective about which commandments they will follow.
Basically, they choose not to abide by the first great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” 20Those who inherit terrestrial glory do so because the “heart, soul, strength, and mind” is not in their testimonies.
Terrestrial beings choose not to abide by the “royal law” to love their neighbors. They might act honorably toward them, but there is no willingness to enter into covenants of love. By failing to live up to the royal law, they forfeit the royal exaltation they might otherwise enjoy: “Wherefore, they obtain not the crown over the kingdom of our God.” 21
The Glory of the Telestial
The glory of the telestial is reserved for those who decline to receive the testimony of Jesus whether in mortality or in the spirit world. They decline the covenants. “They received not the gospel, neither the testimony of Jesus, neither the prophets, neither the everlasting covenant.” 22
Note again that they choose not to receive these things, and they do so in perfect understanding of the choice they are making. The telestial glory, once again, is a choice of the heart.
In the heart of a telestial being is a kind of cold selfishness, a desire to use others for his own gain. “These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” 23 In a word, they are abusive of their fellow human beings. They violate the “royal law.” They reject the Savior deliberately, making no pretense of receiving Him. And they are “innumerable as the stars in the firmament of heaven.” 24
It is a tribute to our Father’s merciful nature that even these of his children, who have made the lives of others painful and difficult, are permitted a measure of glory that “surpasses all understanding.” 25
What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?
When the Savior revealed the royal law, He explained it with a parable in which He made very clear that there are three kinds of people in the world—celestial, terrestrial, and telestial.
Asked what one must do to inherit eternal life, the Savior responded, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and will all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” He was then asked, “And who is my neighbour?”
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho , and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” These represent the telestial class of mankind—those who for their own gain injure and abuse others. Their hearts are proud and selfish.
“And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite.” These represent the terrestrial class of mankind—Church members who choose not to live the gospel with all their hearts. They do not go out of their way to injure others, but there is little love in a terrestrial heart.
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
” 26 The Samaritan represents the celestial class of mankind—those who love one another. Their hearts are filled with that charity which, Moroni tells us, is “the pure love of Christ.” 27
And because they live by the royal law, they qualify to become kings and queens unto the Most High God.
1 Moses 1:39.
2 See D&C 107:56; Moses 1, 7:23-67; Abr. 3-4; D&C 76.
3 See “Ethiopic Book of Enoch” in “Apocalyptic Literature,” Encylopaedia Biblica, T.K. Cheyne, et al, eds., 2003.
4 See Dan. 0-12; Isa. 6; Ezek. 1; 2 Cor. 12:2-4; Rev. 4.
5 D&C 76:20-23.
6 D&C 76:25, 32, 35, 37.
7 D&C 76:39.
8 1 Cor. 15:40-42.
9 D&C 76:51-53.
10 D&C 76:54-55, 59.
11 D&C 137: 1-3, 5.
12 D&C 137:7
13 D&C 131:1-4.
14 D&C 132:19-20.
15 “The Importance of Celestial Marriage,” Ensign, Oct. 1979.
16 James 2:8.
17 D&C 76:74.
18 “Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus,” Ensign, May 1982.
19 “Valiant,” in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828.
20 Luke 10:27.
21 D&C 76:79.
22 D&C 76:101.
23 D&C 76:103.
24 D&C 76:109.
25 D&C 76:89.
26 Luke 10:25-34.
27 Moro. 7:47.